Archive for the 'Culture and Society' Category

Aug 17 2015

Controversial Science Topics on Wikipedia

The press release reads: “On Wikipedia, politically controversial science topics vulnerable to information sabotage.” They could have left off the qualifier, “On Wikipedia” and I think the statement would remain accurate.

But of course they are referring to a specific study, “Content Volatility of Scientific Topics in Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale,” by Adam Wilson and Gene Likens. Likens co-discovered the acid rain phenomenon in North America and was concerned that the Wikipedia entry on acid rain seems to be edited frequently with misinformation.

Wilson and Likens made a comparison of the last ten years of Wikipedia edits for three politically controversial (but not scientifically controversial) topics: evolution, acid rain, and climate change, and compared these to four non-controversial topics: the standard model in physics, heliocentrism, general relativity, and continental drift. They found that the controversial topics were edited much more frequently than the non-controversial ones.

“For example, over the period we analyzed, the global warming page was edited on average (geometric mean ±SD) 1.9±2.7 times resulting in 110.9±10.3 words changed per day, while the standard model in physics was only edited 0.2±1.4 times resulting in 9.4±5.0 words changed per day.”

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May 14 2015

Why Is the Public So Wrong?

I had hoped that the advent of the internet would have a positive effect on public access to information, and perhaps it has. The problem is that it also facilitates access to misinformation. I also wonder to what extent people are availing themselves of this easy access to information (or are they just watching cat videos?).

I now frequently have the experience of being in a discussion with someone and arriving at a disagreement over a specific fact. Pre-internet we would not be able to resolve the difference, we would agree to look it up later, and usually would never do so. Now we can whip our our smartphones and within a minute or two find references to the correct fact.

Despite this there remains a disturbing gap between public perception and reality on many important issues. I discussed previously the recent survey showing significant differences between public attitudes towards certain scientific issues and the attitudes of science. The biggest difference was for the statement that it is, “safe to eat genetically modified food.” While 88% of scientists agreed with this statement, only 37% of the public did.

The gap is not limited to scientific issues, but spans the spectrum of civil issues as well. For example, 68% of Americans believe crime is worsening nationally, and 48% believe it is worsening locally, while crime has been steadily decreasing for the last two decades.

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Feb 26 2015

Liberals and Conservatives Both Resist Science, But Differently

Published by under Culture and Society

There have been a number of studies looking at how ideological belief influence attitudes toward science. It is no surprise that in general people, of whatever ideological bent, engage in motivated reasoning to deny science that appears to contradict their religious or political beliefs. There are different views, however, regarding whether or not the two main political ideologies in the US, liberal and conservative, are equal or substantially different in their resistance to science.

A series of articles in a special section of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science explore this question.  In a commentary summarizing the findings, Kraft et al write:

The studies presented in the preceding section of the volume consistently find evidence for hyperskepticism toward scientific evidence among ideologues, no matter the domain or context—and this skepticism seems to be stronger among conservatives than liberals. Here, we show that these patterns can be understood as part of a general tendency among individuals to defend their prior attitudes and actively challenge attitudinally incongruent arguments, a tendency that appears to be evident among liberals and conservatives alike.

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Jan 30 2015

The Gap Between Public and Scientific Opinion

A recently published poll from the Pew Research center finds that there is a huge gap between public opinion and the opinion of scientists on many important scientific issues of the day. This is disappointing, but not surprising, for a variety of reasons.

Generally speaking, if the majority of scientists have the same opinion about a scientific question (especially relevant experts), then it is a good idea to take that majority opinion seriously. It does not have to be correct, but if you were playing the odds I would go with the experts. If public opinion differs from the opinion of scientists on a scientific question, it is a safe bet that the public is wrong, probably because of interfering cultural, social, political, ideological, psychological, or religious beliefs. (Scientists have those too, which may explain the minority opinion in some cases.)

This attitude is often portrayed as elitism – usually by those who disagree with the scientific majority. Those relatively new to concepts of critical thinking, or trying to sound as if they are critical thinkers, might also dismiss such sentiments as an “argument from authority,” and then declare themselves the victor because they were able to point to a logical fallacy.  They miss the fact that informal logical fallacies are context dependent, and it is not a fallacy to respect (within reasonable limits) the consensus of expert opinion.

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Nov 21 2014

How to Choose Science Advisers

Published by under Culture and Society

I recently discussed the decision of the EU president to eliminate the post of the EUC science adviser. It seems that a major factor in eliminating the position was the unpopular pro-GMO views of the person holding the post, Professor Anne Glover.

Now the US Congress has just passed a bill that would change the way appointments are made to the science advisory panel of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Two aspects of the bill are receiving critical attention, however, reading the text of the bill itself makes it unclear to me what the net effect would be.

The first is a provision allowing onto the advisory panel experts with ties to the industry that is being regulated. The White House claims that this provision would, “negatively affect the appointment of experts and would weaken the scientific independence and integrity of the SAB.”

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. said to the bill’s sponsor, “I get it, you don’t like science, and you don’t like science that interferes with the interests of your corporate clients. But we need science to protect public health and the environment.”

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Nov 18 2014

Perception vs Facts

I was recently in a conversation with someone about the alleged threat that Muslims present to Western societies. I made the point that not all Muslims are radicals, and it’s not valid to condemn the entire group based upon the actions of their most radical members. They countered that “90%” of Muslims were radicals.

Obviously, they made this figure up on the spot for rhetorical effect. But this was their perception, shaped, very likely, by the type of news they generally consume.

In addition to the biasing effect that media can have on our perceptions of reality, there is a day-to-day subtle confirmation bias that colors our perceptions. It is very true that “believing is seeing” – we tend to notice, remember, and accept observations that seem to confirm (or can be interpreted to confirm) our internal model of reality. We tend to ignore or (more often) dismiss observations that seem to contradict our internal narrative. They are reinterpreted, or treated as “exceptions” (assuming the rule to which this new evidence would be an exception).

The good news is that today we have rapid access to objective factual information like never before. I love whipping out my smartphone and fact-checking in the middle of a conversation. This access to information should also have a humbling effect, and should motivate people to question the “facts” that they have rattling around in their brains. Don’t trust anything unless you have a recent and reliable reference.

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Nov 17 2014

Politics vs Science

What happens when your political or ideological views are contradicted by the consensus of scientific opinion regarding the evidence? It appears that a common reaction (depending on how strongly held the ideological views are) is to reject science. Not only do people reject the science specific to their issue, they reject science itself. They reason that if science disagrees with a view they strongly hold (and therefore “know” to be true) then science must be broken.

The latest example of this comes from the European Union. The role of chief science adviser, held by Professor Anne Glover, was recently axed by EU President Jean-Claude Juncker. There are conflicting reports as to the exact reason, but reading through everything it seems pretty clear to me. Her advice on the science, specifically with regard to genetically modified organisms (GMO) was politically inconvenient.

According to speeches given by Glover, her position, created at the beginning of 2012, was always a bit contentious. She said in a speech in New Zealand:

“I would say in-house politics did hamper the efficiency of the role. Many people in the Commission simply did not want a Chief Scientific Adviser, so it was a little bit difficult. I did have the necessary independence but I was often excluded from the essential information.”

She also recounted.

“I turned up and it was almost as if they had forgotten I was coming,” she said, adding that she did not meet her immediate boss – the then EU President, José Manuel Barroso – until day 51 because he “had other things on his mind”.

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Oct 28 2014

What Americans Believe

Surveys are always problematic because they are subject to interpretation, the precise phrasing of questions, sampling bias, and perhaps hidden assumptions on the part of those taking the survey. The results of any single survey, therefore, should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, they can provide a useful snapshot (if done well) of the current culture. 

Skeptics are always interested in what the general public “believes.” The term “belief” is itself problematic, and when used in a survey it is subject to interpretation by those taking the survey. I am not one of those who object to ever using the term “belief.” It is a reasonable short hand for, “I find the totality of available evidence to be compelling,” or “I accept the scientific consensus on this issue,” at least in informal writing or conversation.

In a survey, however, I would prefer any questions about what people “believe” to be replaced by, or at least supplemented by, statements about what the scientific evidence says.

In any case, we have another recent survey about what Americans believe, from Chapman University. The survey covers a lot of territory, from religious affiliation and practice, to what people fear, to what they believe about scientific and paranormal topics. You can download the entire 73-page report of the results from the link above.

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Sep 08 2014

Internet Echochambers

I recently came across a post on the skeptic subreddit pointing to the rules of the 9/11 truther subreddit:

Welcome to 911truth! The purpose of this subreddit is to present and discuss evidence showing that the US Government’s version of the events of 9/11 cannot possibly be true. Submissions or comments supporting the official version, including links to sites purporting to “debunk” the 9/11 Truth Movement (depending on context), are considered off-topic here.

Rules:

  1. Stay on topic. Off topic comments are subject to removal.

Rule #7 also made me smile:

7. No caps lock.

This is the double-edged sword of the internet – it allows for unprecedented on-demand access to incredible information, but that information is biased.

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Aug 05 2014

Persistent Anti-GMO Myths

One persistent theme in my writing about scientific topics is that, to optimally serve our own interests, public discourse and decision-making on issues that are highly scientific should be informed by the best evidence and scientific analysis available, not on lies, myths, misconceptions, or raw ideology. I am therefore attracted to topics where I think the myth to fact ratio is particularly high.

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) is one such issue. The propaganda machine seems to be way out in front of the more sober voices trying to correct the record and focus the discussion on reality. I also see GMO as the ideological flip side to global warming denial.  In the latter case we seen industry and free-market ideologues sowing confusion and misinformation. They also do the ideology shuffle – a dance in which, whenever they are nailed by the facts on one point, they state that their objection is really based on some other point. They never really acknowledge the point, just side-step it.

Anti-GMO activists, in my experience, operate the same way. They have marshaled every possible point they can against GMO, whether or not they are true or valid. When one such point is exposed as a myth, they simply slide over to some other point as their “real” motivation for opposition, but never give any ground.

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